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					SISSA – International School for Advanced Studies                                       Journal of Science Communication
ISSN 1824 – 2049                                                                                        http://jcom.sissa.it/
                                                                                           RECEIVED: September 17, 2009
                                                                                           PUBLISHED: February 26, 2010

Article
SPECIAL ISSUE ON PEER-TO-PEER AND USER-LED SCIENCE


Science blogs and public engagement with science:
practices, challenges, and opportunities

Inna Kouper

    ABSTRACT: Digital information and communication technologies (ICTs) are novelty tools that can
    be used to facilitate broader involvement of citizens in the discussions about science. The same
    tools can be used to reinforce the traditional top-down model of science communication.
    Empirical investigations of particular technologies can help to understand how these tools are
    used in the dissemination of information and knowledge as well as stimulate a dialog about better
    models and practices of science communication.
    This study focuses on one of the ICTs that have already been adopted in science communication,
    on science blogging. The findings from the analysis of eleven blogs are presented in an attempt to
    understand current practices of science blogging and to provide insight into the role of blogging in
    the promotion of more interactive forms of science communication.


Context


Science and the Public

The latest wave in the social studies of science conceptualizes the relationship between science and the
public in terms of the extension of the notion of expertise to non-scientific actors.10 This
conceptualization, which considers non-scientific actors as being able to contribute to debates about
science, challenges the canonical view of the public as a rather receiving agent that needs to be informed
and educated.6,19,26 A shift from public understanding to public engagement with science has been
characterized as citizen-oriented science or a more open, egalitarian, and participatory science.14,15,17,23
These descriptions aim to acknowledge the importance of citizens’ concerns and perspectives and
consider the dialog between scientific and citizen groups to be a crucial element of the modern ways of
knowledge production and governance.
  A range of new ways of engaging the public in dialog and decision making have been introduced in
practice and discussed in scholarly literature, for example, citizen advisory committees, citizen panels
and juries, and Dutch study groups.17,21 These initiatives create spaces for science and the public to meet
and engage in the collective construction of knowledge claims.8 In a broader sense the spaces for public
engagement with science include individual scientific creativity, ethnoscience, localized knowledge, the
market, and public discourse.20 The latter, the space of public discourse, is identified by Nowotny as a
hybrid space that focuses on moral, political, and cultural aspects of knowledge claims and can
potentially lead to the creation of new knowledge.
  The studies of public discourse as a space where knowledge claims can be sustained, contested, or
redefined have addressed the issues of authority, legitimacy, framing, and agency in a variety of
contexts.9,11,12,22,27 A significant amount of work focused on particular cases of scientific debates and on
the role of traditional mass media in these debates. Less attention has been paid to the examination of
newer forms of communication. The Internet has already become a part of science communications, and
yet there is no clear and systematic understanding of how such media as forums, blogs, wikis, and so on
contribute to the debates about science.


JCOM 9(1), March 2010                 Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0
I. Kouper                                                                                                2




Science Blogs

Blog is a frequently updated webpage that facilitates informal communication between the author of
the blog and its audience. The blogosphere consists of multiple forms of expression that range from
intimate confessions aimed at a few people to journalistic and scholarly writings that attract large
numbers of readers. Depending on the style, format, and content, blogs can be characterized as
personal, political, or travel blogs as well as video, spam blogs, and so on. Science blogs have been
described rather loosely as blogs that focus on science or are written by scientists and science
journalists.3
  Science blogging is viewed as having a potential to become a new model for science journalism 4 and
as a powerful tool that can be used by academic institutions to disseminate scientific information and
facilitate conversations about science.2 Some scientists argue though that science blogs reinforce the
deficit model of science communication and blend discussions of science with ideologically driven
commentary.5
  So far the discussion about science blogs develops primarily in the form of journalistic and scholarly
commentary rather than research-based analysis. It focuses on what blogs can and cannot do and why
blogging can be a promising tool for scientists.7 Most often the analysis relies on a few examples of
science blogging and uses these examples to contextualize general considerations and descriptions.25
To better understand challenges and opportunities science blogs can bring, it is necessary to analyze
current practices of science blogging. To date no attempts have been made to do that. The present
study is the first step in this direction.


Objectives and methodology

The ultimate goal of this study is to initiate a scholarly evidence-based discussion about the role of
science blogs in promoting public engagement with science. Public engagement is conceptualized as
involvement of non-scientists, i.e., individuals who are not associated with any scientific discipline or
area of inquiry as part of their professional activities. Non-scientists can be involved in science in
multiple ways, e.g., by engaging in discussions, participating in data collection, experimenting, providing
feedback based on their knowledge of local contexts and situations, contributing to policy-making, and so
on. For the purposes of this study the understanding of public engagement is limited to the engagement in
meaningful conversation and dialog about scientific issues.
  It is hypothesized that to facilitate public involvement in the discussions about science, science
bloggers need to engage in the following activities (called modes of participation henceforth): 1)
inform their readers about scientific news, 2) explain complicated matters in a manner understandable
by a lay person, 3) evaluate research findings and claims made by others, 4) articulate their position
toward controversial issues. Signs of public engagement with science include at least the following: a)
both scientists and non-scientists are involved in blogging, b) the majority of content in posts and
commentary is concerned with science and scientific issues, c) both blog authors and readers are
engaged in the activities mentioned above. Given the novelty and exploratory character of this
research, the examination of science blogs focuses on participants, blog sources and topical content,
and modes of participation.
  The data for this study consist of posts and comments from eleven blogs that write about science and
technology. The blogs were sampled via the Internet search for “science blogs” and “blogs about
science” and by following scientific news on the moment of data collection in Summer, 2008. Below is
the list of blogs from which the posts and comments were sampled along with the blogs’ URLs and
authorship information (see table 1).
  Before sampling blogs were examined for posting activity. As it was determined that some blogs posted
one or two messages per week and others posted several messages per day, it was decided to save 30
days of activity from less active blogs and five days of activity from very active blogs. For all the blogs
except BioEthics the collected posts and comments were published in July 2008. As BioEthics had
insufficient activity in July 2008, the April 2008 posts and comments were collected from this blog. For
the feasibility of qualitative analysis, the number of sampled comments was limited to the first 15
comments per post. Overall, 174 posts and 1409 comments from 11 blogs were saved and analyzed.
3                                   Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges, and opportunities




    N           Title                                URL                                Number of             Real
                                                                                         authors             name
                                                                                                            provided
     1   Pure Pedantry         scienceblogs.com/purepedantry                                one                yes
     2   Synthesis             www.synthesis.cc                                             one                yes
     3   MicrobiologyBytes     www.microbiologybytes.com/blog                               one                yes
     4   Wired Science         www.wired.com/wiredscienc                               three or more           yes
     5   BioEthics             blog.bioethics.net                                      three or more           yes
     6   DrugMonkey            scienceblogs.com/drugmonkey                                  two                no
     7   Scientific Activist   scienceblogs.com/scientificactivist                          one                yes
     8   Pharyngula            scienceblogs.com/pharyngula                                  one                yes
     9   Panda’s Thumb         www.pandasthumb.org                                     three or more           yes
    10   ScienceBlog           scienceblog.com                                         three or more           no
    11   Cosmic Variance       blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance               three or more           yes
                                          Table 1. Blogs - sources of data.

  A combination of quantitative and qualitative techniques of content analysis has been used in this study.
The qualitative analysis involved iterative close reading of posts and comments with the purpose of
identifying common types of statements and activities conceptualized as modes of participation. This
conceptualization was informed by the speech act theory and the pragmatics perspective,1,18,24 yet it was
purposefully left rather loose and open to allow for the categories to emerge from the data. Each time a
mode of participation was identified, it was entered into a catalog, and then a post or a comment was
assigned a corresponding code. Along with the modes of participation, the posts were coded for topics
and sources of the post; the comments were coded for the reader’s identification elements (e.g., a
nickname, first name, full name, link to blog, or blog author). Subsequently all codes were counted and
the analysis proceeded with the examination of the most frequent and rare patterns and their groupings.


Findings

The findings suggest that science blogs are too heterogeneous to be understood as an emerging genre of
science communication. The blogs employ a variety of writing and authoring models, and no signs of
emerging or stabilizing genre conventions could be observed. Even though all blogs mentioned science or
a particular scientific discipline in their descriptions, they differed in their voice representations, points of
view, and content orientation. Some bloggers emphasized the first person perspective and presented
themselves through religious and political affiliation (e.g., “The blog is about whatever we find
interesting” at Cosmic Variance or “Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a
godless liberal” at Pharyngula). Others shifted the focus from their personalities to the content and
featured more neutral forms of presentation (e.g., “… the latest news about microbiology” at
MycrobiologyBytes or “… your source for news and commentary on science” at The Scientific Activist).
Differences in sources, topics, and modes of participation among blogs are discussed below.


Sources

In search for inspiration and topics, the authors relied on their personal experience, news and
commentary from other media including other blogs, and research papers. Each of these categories
comprised about 15% of all sources. Among other sources of blogs posts were posts from digg.com and
similar aggregation websites, user comments, face-to-face communication, and TV and video sources.
  Personal experience and news from other media were used to discuss predominantly non-scientific,
often political, matters.28 Thus, the blog authors commented on the issues of sports doping (Pure
Pedantry), children medical care and religion (BioEthics), creationism versus evolution disputes
(Panda’s Thumb), US presidential elections (The Scientific Activist), and the life of a Serbian politician
Radovan Karadzic (Cosmic Variance).Other examples of using experienced events as sources of blog
posts included reporting about conferences and public lectures, commemorating events from the past, or
noticing the appearance of new material on the web.
I. Kouper                                                                                                  4




  Sometimes personal experiences and news were also used to bring up scientific issues. Thus, in the case of
sports doping (Pure Pedantry) the author also provided the information about the doping drug and its effects.
In a post about experiencing an earthquake (Cosmic Variance), the author supplemented the account of his
personal experience with links to the US Geological Survey website and its information about world’s
earthquakes. More often though, scientific matters were brought up when the authors reviewed, summarized,
or simply pointed to research papers. For example, a post about magnetic bacteria at MicrobiologyBytes that
described these bacteria and potential applications that can arise from the knowledge about them referred to
papers published in the Annual Review of Biochemistry and Trends of Biotechnology.


Topics

The topical content of the examined science blogs is presented as a keyword cloud in the figure below.
The font size corresponds to the frequency with which a particular topic appeared in blogs (i.e., the larger
the font is, the more often the topic was covered in the sample).




                            Figure 1. Topics covered in the examined science blogs.


  As can be seen from the figure above, science blogs cover a variety of issues and topics beyond science.
Among the topics related to science the most frequently covered topics were evolution, health, and space.
The prominence of the topics of evolution and creationism can be explained by the dominance of two
highly prolific blogs Pharyngula and Panda’s Thumb, which consider the promotion of evolutionary
theory as their main focus. Among other scientific topics bloggers discussed genetics, physics, and
biotechnology. More often, though, science bloggers discussed what has been posted on other blogs and
websites and reflected on the practices in academia, on their and others’ blogging, and on the issues of
their personal life.


Modes of participation

The catalog of participation modes identified during the analysis of blog posts and comments consists of
50 entries. Each entry describes a particular kind of discursive activity, such as agreeing or disagreeing,
advancing an argument or a position, offering an assumption, doubting, warning, and so on. All modes of
participation can be grouped into at least four larger groups: contribution to the topic (e.g., report,
5                                   Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges, and opportunities




argument, explanation, or clarification question), deviation from the topic (e.g., digression, insult, or self-
promotion), expression of attitudes and emotions (e.g., approval / disapproval, gratitude, regret, or
sharing personal experience), and attempts to influence the actions of others (e.g., advice,
recommendation, request, or proposal).
  Each larger group of participation modes was equally noticeable in the sample, therefore it is difficult to
claim that one form of communication or the other is more common for science blogs. Being a more fluid
and personal genre of communication, blogs allow for greater variability of expression, and it seems that
the authors of science blogs eagerly utilize this fluidity and variability. It was observed though, that
certain blogs favored one mode of participation over the others.


Authors

The authors of the examined science blogs are all somehow related to science, yet the nature of the
relationship is quite diverse. Some authors are graduate students specializing in certain areas, such as
neuroscience or biochemistry, others are lecturers, researchers, and professors from certain disciplines,
such as physics or biology, and others are science writers and journalists. The blog BioEthics is written
by the editors of The American Journal of Bioethics, and these editors have background in medicine,
philosophy, sociology, and bioethics.
  To a certain extent, the diversity of authors’ background explains the diversity of modes of
participation. Each blog in the sample relied heavily on one or two modes of communication with other
modes being rare and sporadic. For example, reporting was almost an exclusive form of communication
for Wired Science blog. BioEthics blog combined reporting, explanations, and position statements.
Panda’s Thumb blog offered explanations and critique, but opinions and evaluations were much more
common for this blog.
  The reporting mode is defined in this study as an account of events or a short description of an external
document. It is one of the primary modes intended to inform and communicate news. As can be seen
from the excerpt below, reports tend to avoid personal opinions and judgments and present the author as
a “transparent” messenger who observes and communicates reality.

          Excerpt 1 - Wired Science
          Out in the Mojave desert, Virgin Galactic has unveiled the new transport ship they’ll be using to
          carry their SpaceShipTwo into suborbital space. With a 140-foot wingspan, it’s the largest all-
          carbon composite aircraft ever built. Virgin founder Richard Branson christened the plane, EVE,
          after his mother. Stay tuned for more details and pictures…

  Another characteristic of reporting is the use of exaggerations and generalizations. As can be seen from
the excerpt below, blog authors use this journalistic technique to catch readers’ attention and make the
subject even more sensational.

          Excerpt 2 - Wired Science
          For the last 55 million years, the pen-tailed shrew has survived on a diet consisting of beer.
          How’s that for an evolutionary bender? The shrew lives in the forest of Malaysia and feeds on the
          flowers of the bertam palm. Produced year-round and constantly fermenting, its nectar is about
          3.8 percent alcohol — roughly equivalent to a Sam Adams light.

  The writer of this post freely interpreted the findings of the study and substituted alcohol-containing
nectar mentioned in the original research with beer. This way the news becomes more entertaining, yet it
may prevent the readers from getting accurate information and forming their own opinion, thereby
making it difficult to rely on this form of reporting as a source of accurate information.
  The explanation mode, defined in this study as making something plain or understandable, is another
participation mode that can initiate the discussion and stimulate further engagement with a topic. The
intention to make something understandable does not necessarily mean that it is in fact understandable. In
the excerpt below, for example, the author explains the concept of antimatter and avoids technical
terminology and scientific jargon. Nevertheless, it requires some knowledge of physics to understand
what the author is talking about.
I. Kouper                                                                                                            6




            Excerpt 3 - Cosmic Variance
            Antimatter is just like ordinary matter in every way, except that every quantity you can think of
            (apart from mass and spin), is reversed. As an example, the electron is a particle with a specific
            mass and carrying a specific amount of negative electric charge. The antiparticle of the electron is
            a positron, which has the identical mass to an electron, but precisely the opposite charge. The
            thing about particles and their antiparticles is that, if one puts them together, the net value of any
            quantity (called a quantum number by physicists) carried by the pair of them is zero. Therefore, a
            particle and an antiparticle together are merely mass which, thanks to Einstein’s E=mc2, can be
            converted entirely into energy. As a result of this, when matter and antimatter come together,
            they annihilate, producing energy in the form of light (photons).

  The evaluation mode is defined as describing elements of a post in positive or negative terms such as
good, bad, interesting, etc. By evaluating events, people, or documents authors and readers of science blogs
can offer their opinions without spending too much time examining pros and cons or justifying their
positions. Contrary to critique and argument, evaluations are a rather light form of judgment that can serve
as a recommendation, an invitation to contribute, or an indication of group affiliation. Even though
evaluations initiate topics, they can often be seen as deviations from topics because the intention behind
evaluations is not only to discuss something, but to express and elicit certain attitudes and feelings.
  In the excerpt below evaluations serve as a technique for reinforcing the boundary between two
opposing groups of actors: “us,” the pro-evolution authors of the blog and those readers who agree with
them, and “them,” the members of the creationist movement (emphasis added).

            Excerpt 4 - Panda's Thumb
            It is another mark of the incompetence of the ID movement that they actually hand out an award
            named after Casey Luskin. Pick the most ineffectual, uninformed, pathetic loser on the
            creationist side, and use his name to inspire the next generation of IDiots. It's actually amusingly
            appropriate.

  Emotional and often insulting evaluations are very common for this and some other blogs that seem to
be eager to demonstrate not only their rightness, but also to distinguish their group of reasonable and
worthy individuals from others, who are wrong, unintelligent, and overall worthless. The frequency of
such evaluations and mockery undermines the goals of rational debate and criticism. Such activities can
foster solidarity among the like-minded individuals, yet at the same time, they may spur hostility in those
who are undecided or hold a different opinion.
  Less complicated common forms of author participation in science blogs included announcements and
summaries of documents. Announcements publicize events and sources of information (e.g., “The Kaiser
network is hosting a live webcast to discuss the influence of the blogosphere on health policy” or
“Tonight, on the History Channel… It's the much anticipate first episode of a new series, Evolve –
Eyes”). Summaries provide elaborate descriptions of research papers and essays and often use very
specific terminology such as dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which would require the reader to have some
background in a particular field. While such summaries somewhat popularize the content of research
papers, the amount of minimal background necessary for a lay person to understand and follow the
research news varied among different science blogs.


Readers

Readers of science blogs also had some relationship with science, i.e., they were not exactly non-scientists
or lay persons. One author posted a message titled “Who are you?” and asked his readers for information
about themselves and their background. The answers to this post as well as the overall analysis of readers’
comments demonstrate that those readers who engage in commenting are almost always associated with
science one way or another. They are graduate students, postdoctoral associates, faculty members, and
researchers from a variety of scientific and research fields including biology, physics, neuroscience, and
medicine. Wired Science was probably the only blog in the sample where non-scientists formed a
considerable portion of the commenting audience. Nevertheless, even in this blog commenters often took
the position of authority and talked as experts who are quite knowledgeable about the subject.
7                                   Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges, and opportunities




 The interest in particular blogs for such expert and scientist readers is determined by their needs to get
news on a broader set of scientific topics, to learn about the developments in other scientific fields, or to
engage in conversations with like-minded colleagues and science bloggers. As one reader noticed, science
blogs are virtual water coolers, where fellow scientists and researchers can virtually get together and talk
about “what's interesting in research topics, what's up with funding, looking for trends and needs.”
 The water cooler metaphor also fits with the light-weight nature of comments. While some readers
contributed to the development of topic by building upon a post and previous comments and adding
something to it, e.g., a new thought, an idea, a non-clarifying question, or an answer to a non-clarifying
question, a large portion of comments was concerned with short expressions of personal attitudes or
digressed from the topic discussed in the blog post. Below is an example of how the first comment to the
post about Louisiana creationism law and its criticism by the conservative writer John Derbyshire
generated the whole discussion about Barack Obama and his presidency in response:

         Excerpt 5 - Panda's Thumb
         Derbeyshire is either confused, or very disingenuous, in labeling Jindal a dupe. Jindal knows
         exactly what this bill is all about, knows what the DI does for a living, and is making a carefully
         calculated appeal to what he gambles will be a large enough voting bloc in Louisiana and perhaps
         the US, to ride much further. I imagine he’s reading the handwriting on the same wall Obama is
         reading from (in publicly supporting “faith-based initiatives”). These guys are pros, with
         outstanding political sensitivities. Apparently, you can’t win without the bible bangers.

  After this comment a thread of comments developed defending or criticizing Barack Obama and his
approach to science, religion, politics, and so on. These comments were completely unrelated to the topic
of Louisiana creationism law provided by the blog post.29
  Comments concerned with expressing personal feelings and attitudes consisted of sharing personal
experiences, insulting other participants, thanking, and stating one’s position about a controversial issue.
Sharing personal experiences was often triggered by discussions of events or situations that somehow
affected readers personally (e.g., “I’m about 20 miles from the epicenter. A lot of shaking and noise, but
shouldn’t be any major damage” or “My daughter suffered horribly from ear infections until 3rd grade”).
Sharing personal details was also used as a form of establishing authority. For example, in the discussion
about the dangers of nuclear weapons one commenter backed up his opinion that mutually assured
destruction (MAD) is a viable defense against nuclear attack with the information that as a naval officer
he had served on two different ballistic missile submarines.
  Insults, such as “Don’t be an idiot.. rtfa” or “Could you possibly sound any more stupid with this
comment?” were more common for some blogs than the others. Thus, Wired Science and Panda’s Thumb
were filled with insulting commentary. Offensive remarks regarding somebody’s personality or
intellectual abilities most often targeted other commenters and the characters of posts, but sometimes
they were directed at blog authors as well, such as the following comment in DrugMonkey blog: “You are
correct, I never read a post in which you claim not to be pompous and arrogant”.
  In addition to personal attitudes and obvious digressions, where commenters would take an element
from a blog post and develop it into an independent topic of conversation, a large portion of comments
offered humorous and sarcastic remarks. Thus, the Wired Science post about nuclear weapons as a way to
destroy asteroids got the following comments among others: “Got Bruce Willis?”, “You don’t want to
destroy or deflect comets or asteroids, you want to capture and harvest them…”, and “Like the SF writers
of yore knew: Resistance is Futile”.
  Sarcasm was often used as a way to offer disagreement or disapproval or question the credibility of the
message, its author, or its source. In the excerpt below, for example, the reader makes a sarcastic remark
to criticize the existing capitalism system in relation to the development and distribution of drugs:

         Excerpt 6 - Wired Science
         But would big pharma really be needed to produce massive amounts? There are already
         companies that do just fine selling generics. And perhaps a whole new industry will emerge to
         meet the demand for drugs like Rember, which would be great.
         After all, unlike drugs which meet the needs of millions of poor people, Rember would meet the
         needs of millions of relatively rich people. Go capitalism!
I. Kouper                                                                                                     8




Discussion

Science blogs examined in this study are very heterogeneous. They provide information and explain
complicated matters, but their evaluations are often trivial and they rarely provide extensive critique or
articulate positions on controversial issues. Kenix16 analyzed political news blogs as alternative news
sources and found that the blogs offered binary, reductive analysis and dependent reporting. She also
found that readers often provided caustic commentary and argued that comments can be considered a
separate communicative sphere more akin to a neighborhood bar than to the Habermasian public sphere.
It appears that science blogging can also be characterized as relying on reductive analysis and dependent
reporting and drawing caustic and petty commentary. These characteristics may as well be applied to the
newspaper and magazine science communication, but with the newer science communication outlet such
as blogging they indicate that the potential of blogging to do something differently, e.g., to provide
informed expert and citizen commentary, is not realized.
  In their current multiplicity of forms and contents science blogs present a challenge rather than an
opportunity for public engagement with science. Lack of genre conventions, which for the audience
translates into broken expectations and uncertainty, impedes the development of stable readership and
participation from the larger public, which may also be very heterogeneous. The “neighborhood bar” or
“water cooler” commentary creates a sense of community with shared context and culture, but at the
same time it creates a barrier that prevents strangers and outsiders from joining the conversation. As a
community of scientists or individuals close to science, the existing readers may enjoy the entertaining
nature of science blogs and not need science blogs to serve as a place for discussion and rational debate.
Relying on such community of readers, bloggers may reduce their interpretive activities and resort to
copying, re-distributing, and re-packaging of the existing information, which is still quite rewarding
given the background of the majority of current readers and yet requires much less time and effort.
  This study provides further evidence that blogging as a web tool has no magic properties on its own.
Without a concerted effort of different social actors involved it will not solve any problems. Certain
developments, such as public engagement with science, can only be facilitated if the technology is
embedded within the network of social actors and structures. With regard to science blogging, it would
perhaps require a joint effort of scientists, journalists, educators, and other groups of actors to re-think the
role of blogging in the promotion of participatory science. As one paper noted in relation to the issue of
participant involvement in digital libraries, participation requires human moderation, technological
mediation, and a significant investment of time, effort, and money.13
   This study has a number of limitations. The study is based on a limited sample, and the applicability of
its findings and conclusions needs to be tested further. The findings can serve as an initial step in the
investigations of the relationship between science blogging and public engagement with science and in
the development of the taxonomy of modes of participation. Due to the small number of posts and
comments, certain important modes of participation could have been overlooked. A more elaborate
taxonomy of participation modes could serve as a basis for further genre analysis of science blogging.
The role of humor in science communication and collective interpretation of knowledge also needs to be
examined. Finally, the study would benefit from extending the analysis to lurkers, i.e., those readers who
follow the content but do not post comments.


Conclusion

This study examined posts and comments from eleven science blogs in an attempt to answer the question
of whether they can facilitate public engagement with science. The findings suggest that the majority of
individuals involved in science blogging as both authors and readers are professional scientists or future
professional scientists. Science blogs are a virtual water cooler for graduate students, postdoctoral
associates, faculty, and researchers from a variety of disciplines and areas of inquiry.
  The conversations in science blogs are also of “water cooler” quality. Bloggers alternate explanations
and critical commentary with quick personal opinions, re-posting of content from news sources and other
blogs, and humorous and sarcastic remarks. Readers respond with similar actions and in addition to topic
developments offer quick personal judgments, insulting and sarcastic remarks, and personal details. To
become a tool for non-scientist participation, science blogs need to stabilize as a genre or as a set of
subgenres where smaller conversations may facilitate more meaningful participation from members of
9                                            Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges, and opportunities




the public.30 Science bloggers need to become more aware of their audience, welcome non-scientists, and
focus on explanatory, interpretative, and critical modes of communication rather than on reporting and
opinionating. An interesting practical experiment would also be to reverse the roles of writers and readers
and invite the so called “ordinary persons” to create and publish science blogs, i.e., to engage them in the
practices of science blog writing rather than reading or commenting.


Notes and references
    1
        J.L. Austin (1975), How to do things with words, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
    2
        S.A. Batts, N.J. Anthis and T.C. Smith (2008), Advancing science through conversations: Bridging the gap between blogs and
        the academy, PLoS Biology, 6(9), 1837.
    3
        L. Bonetta (2007), Scientists enter the blogosphere, Cell 129(3): 443-445.
    4
        G. Brumfiel (2009), Science journalism: Supplanting the old media?, Nature 458: 274-277.
    5
        T. Bubela et al. (2009), Science communication reconsidered, Nature Biotechnology 27(6), 514-518.
    6
        M. Bucchi (1998), Science and the media: Alternative routes in scientific communication, New York: Routledge.
    7
        D. Butler (2005), Science in the web age: Joint efforts, Nature 438(7068): 548-549.
    8
        M. Callon (1999), The role of lay people in the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge, Science, technology &
        society 4(1), 81-94.
    9
        H. Calsamiglia and C.L. Ferrero (2003), Role and position of scientific voices: Reported speech in the media, Discourse Studies
        5(2), 147-173.
10
        H. Collins and R. Evans (2002), The third wave of science studies: Studies of expertise and experience, Social Studies of
        Science 32(2), 235-296.
11
        G. Cook, E. Pieri and P.T. Robbins (2004), 'The scientists think and the public feels': Expert perceptions of the discourse of
        GM food, Discourse Society 15(4), 433-449.
12
        H.T. Engelhardt and A.L. Caplan (1987), Scientific controversies: Case studies in the resolution and closure of disputes in
        science and technology, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
13
        S. Giersch, et al (2004), If you build it, will they come? Participant involvement in digital libraries, D-Lib Magazine 10(7/8),
        retrieved from http://www.dlib.org/dlib/july04/giersch/07giersch.html.
14
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15
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28
        Even though some of the topics could be considered to be a matter of science and some other domain (e.g., politics or history),
        a topic was considered non-scientific when no connections to scientific knowledge, methods, or processes had been made in the
        post. This rather restrictive assumption about the content of science blogs will hopefully generate more scholarly discussions
        about the purpose, genres, and practices of science blogging.
29
        The low level of spam messages in the blogs indicates the use of some moderation mechanisms. However, it was not examined
        in this study whether the authors engage in extensive moderation of reader comments and to what extent the published
        comments are the result of such moderation.
30
        The author is grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out the usefulness of smaller conversations rather than one big
        public conversation. This seems to be a very fruitful idea worth further exploration.
I. Kouper                                                                                              10




Author

Inna Kouper is a doctoral candidate in the School of Library and Information Science, Indiana University
Bloomington. Her current research interests lie broadly in the areas of language and information; the role
of science in society; and the evolution of information and communication technologies generally
described as social or participatory media (such as blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc.).
E-mail: inkouper@indiana.edu.



HOW TO CITE:     I. Kouper, Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges,
                 and opportunities, Jcom 09(01) (2010) A02.

				
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